Thinking about differences in worship music “in the Spirit of Christ the servant”

Any church that has been around for a while in America is aware of the tensions that rise to the surface in discussions about worship music. In previous decades, the discussion was about the place of ‘traditional’ hymns vs contemporary music. Things might be a bit more complex now, although perhaps that’s always how it seems in the midst of it. The issue isn’t traditional hymns vs. contemporary praise choruses. Now there are new hymns and “re-tuned” hymns – and many re-tuned into different musical genres. Interestingly, the ‘contemporary’ music of just a couple decades ago is now the ‘traditional’ music to other ears.

There’s obviously much to think through when considering the music churches have at their gathering. There are lots of factors to consider. But at the foundation of any healthy conversation is an attitude that reflects the gospel or, as John Frame says, an attitude that is “in the spirit of Christ the servant.” As Christ gave up his preferences to serve us, so we joyfully receive his service and reflect it to others in all aspects of life, including discussions about worship music. We seek to serve others in our church and those in our community – even with respect to this topic.

What does this attitude look like? In Worship in Spirit and Truth, John Frame brings great clarity here.

“To a certain extent… developments in church music [ie., in contemporary worship throughout history] legitimately reflect the biblical and Reformation principle that worship is to be intelligible, and therefore vernacular, and in one sense “popular” (1 Cor. 14). If the church takes this principle seriously, it will necessarily encourage changes in musical styles and language in order to communicate with new generations…” (117).

“…Such change, however, can be painful to some. To younger generations, it represents an increase in intelligibility, but to older generations, it may represent a loss. Some complaints of the older generations may be petty, creating unnecessary conflict over matters of musical taste, but generally their complaints are more serious than that. One’s hymnody is his language of worship; it is the language of his heart’s conversation with God. To lose the hymns one has grown up singing is, therefore, no small thing. The younger generations should learn to sympathize with this sense of loss and to accommodate their desires to the spiritual needs of their fathers and mothers in Christ. But the opposite is also true: if the older do not bend somewhat, the younger will be deprived of their own language of worship – those forms of God’s word intelligible to them, by which they best grow in Christ. In this respect, both sides should defer to one another in love, in the Spirit of Christ (Matt 20:20-26)…” (116).

 “…if we are to pursue the biblical goal of intelligible worship (1 Cor 14), we should seek musical settings that speak the musical languages of our congregation and community. To do this is not to cater to human taste, but to honor God in his desire to edify people in worship. We should not selfishly insist on using music only from our own favorite tradition. Rather, in the spirit of Christ the servant, we must be willing to sacrifice our own preferences in order to reach others with the truth. The Great Commission turns us outward, rather than inward: it calls us even in worship to reach out to those who are ignorant of Christ and of our musical traditions. It is a good idea, then, for all of us to learn to appreciate music that doesn’t immediately appeal to us. In that way we serve one another, and we also grow by learning to praise God in new ways” (140-141).

No specifics are offered here. Once this attitude is humbly and firmly in place, those discussions will be healthy and will naturally follow.

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